The legend of Robin Hood has been told in England for at least 700 years. He and his band of gallant outlaws who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor have been described in dozens of poems and stories, and it seems likely that there was once a real outlaw about whom the tales first grew up. No one man could have had all the adventures that are attributed to the Robin of legend, and yet there are some things that are similar in many of them and that therefore look as if they were founded on fact. For instance, Robin Hood is said to have lived with his men in Sherwood Forest in the English county of Nottinghamshire, and nearly all his adventures are described as taking place in the district that includes Nottinghamshire and part of Yorkshire. There are place names such as Robin Hood’s Bay and Robin Hood’s Cave in these areas today. Another theory about the legend of Robin Hood is that he is an aspect of the seasonal hero king of pagan myth. He is deeply connected to the woods and wild places and in appearance seems to have many similarities to other English folk figures such as the Green Man, Herne the Hunter and Robin Goodfellow. Perhaps he was created by the Saxons as their equivalent of Celtic heroes such as King Arthur, the wizard Merlin and the bard Taliesin. Whatever his origin, Robin Hood remains an extremely popular heroic figure, one whose myth endures as strongly today as it ever did.
The facts behind the legend are uncertain, partly because Robin Hood’s origin seems to be a matter of some dispute. While he is most commonly believed to have been a peasant of lowly birth, some sources declare that he was born at Locksley in Nottinghamshire about 1160, that his true name was Robert Fitz-Ooth and that he was the Earl of Huntingdon. Some accounts merge Robin Hood’s identity with that of an earlier outlaw, Adam Bell, who was similarly reputed to live in the woods, robbing the rich, killing only in self-defence and sparing poor men’s goods. The time when Robin was said to have lived was at the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries, in the reigns of King Richard I and King John. Richard, known as the Lionheart, cared only for war and spent nearly all his reign outside England, fighting battles in the Crusades and in Europe, while his brother John, who ruled for him while he was away, was often cruel and unjust. Robin Hood was therefore depicted as the head of a kind of Saxon resistance movement against the tyranny of their Norman overlords. As such he was given all of the essential heroic qualities – bravery, generosity and skill in battle. His goodness won him many loyal followers, the chief of whom were Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck and the love of his life Maid Marian. However, he also attracted some mortal enemies, including the Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisborne and King John himself. Despite his many heroic deeds, in the ballads Robin is depicted as coming to a sad end. A specific date for Robin’s death (18 November 1247) was given by the famous antiquarian Ralph Thoresby – the day on which the outlaw was bled to death by a treacherous nun at Kirklees Abbey following an arrow wound.
Popular plays embodying the legend appear to developed out of the village May Day game, with Robin Hood and Maid Marian taking the places traditionally given to the king and queen of the May, and the Hobby Horse ceremony, which takes place on the same day in Padstow, Cornwall. It is in these customs that it is possible to see an older and deeper origin for the figure of Robin. The folklorist Lord Raglan concluded that he was really a Celtic god, while the scholar Margaret Murray argued that he was the ‘horned one’ in ancient pagan festivals. Some say that his name is derived from the Norse god Woden (Odin) and he appears as ‘Robin Wood’ in T H White’s Sword in the Stone, in which he becomes a contemporary of King Arthur in about the year 540 (five hundred years before other sources say he was born!). In this context it is worth mentioning that of all the Robin Hood adaptations that have appeared on film and television, perhaps the finest, ITV’s Robin of Sherwood from the early 1980s, makes use of the pagan origin of the legend. Turning away from the traditional Errol Flynn depiction of Robin, there are no green tights to be found in this version of the legend of Sherwood Forest and precious few merry men. Instead, the figure of Robin Hood is returned to his roots in Old English myth – he no longer simply robs from the rich and gives to the poor but is the chosen son of nature deity Herne the Hunter, wielding the magical sword Albion in battle against supernatural as well as mortal foes. In my opinion this remains the truest, most definitive re-telling of the old folk tale and is perhaps the finest fantasy series the UK has ever produced, one whose influence can be seen in every screen version of Robin Hood that has appeared since. I think that even Robin himself, had he ever existed, might have approved!